Researchers restore coordinated limb movement in dogs with severe spinal cord injury

November 20, 2012

(Medical Xpress)—In a collaboration between the University's Veterinary School and MRC's Regenerative Medicine Centre, scientists used a unique type of cell to regenerate the damaged part of the dogs' spines. The researchers are cautiously optimistic that the work could have a future role in the treatment of human patients with similar injuries if used alongside other treatments.

Scientists have been aware for over a decade that olfactory ensheathing cells (OEC) might be useful in treating the damaged because of their . The cells have the ability to support growth that maintains a pathway between the nose and the brain.

Previous research using laboratory animals has already revealed that OECs can aid regeneration of the parts of that transmit signals (axons) so as to form a 'bridge' between damaged and undamaged spinal cord tissue. A Phase 1 trial in human patients with SCI established that the procedure is safe.

The video will load shortly

The study, published in the latest issue of the neurology journal Brain, is the first double-blinded randomised to test the effectiveness of these transplants to improve function in 'real-life' spinal cord injury. The trial was performed on animals that had spontaneous and accidental injury rather than in the controlled environment of a laboratory, and some time after the injury occurred.  This far more closely resembles the way in which the procedure might be used in human patients.

The 34 pet dogs had all suffered severe spinal cord injury. Twelve months or more after the injury, they were unable to use their back legs to walk and unable to feel pain in their hindquarters. Many of the dogs were dachshunds which are particularly prone to this type of injury. Dogs are also more likely to suffer from SCIs because the spinal cord may be damaged as a result of what in humans is the relatively minor condition of a slipped disc.

In the study, funded by the MRC, one group of dogs had olfactory ensheathing cells from the lining of their own nose injected into the injury site. The other group of dogs was injected with just the liquid in which the cells were transplanted. Neither the researchers nor the owners (nor the dogs!) knew which injection they were receiving.

The dogs were observed for adverse reactions for 24 hours before being returned to their owners. From then on, they were tested at one month intervals for neurological function and to have their gait analysed on a treadmill while being supported in a harness. In particular, the researchers analysed the dogs' ability to co-ordinate movement of their front and back limbs.

The group of dogs that had received the OEC injection showed considerable improvement that was not seen in the other group. These animals moved previously paralysed hind limbs and co-ordinated the movement with their front legs.  This means that in these dogs neuronal messages were being conducted across the previously damaged part of the spinal cord.  However, the researchers established that the new nerve connections accounting for this recovery were occurring over short distances within the spinal cord and not over the longer distances required to connect the brain with the spinal cord.

Professor Robin Franklin, a co-author of the study from the Wellcome Trust-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, University of Cambridge, said: "Our findings are extremely exciting because they show for the first time that transplanting these types of cell into a severely damaged spinal cord can bring about significant improvement. We're confident that the technique might be able to restore at least a small amount of movement in human patients with but that's a long way from saying they might be able to regain all lost function. It's more likely that this procedure might one day be used as part of a combination of treatments, alongside drug and physical therapies, for example."

Dr Rob Buckle, Head of Regenerative Medicine at the MRC, commented: "This proof of concept study on pet dogs with the type of injury sustained by human spinal patients is tremendously important and an excellent basis for further research in an area where options for treatment are extremely limited. It's a great example of collaboration between veterinary and researchers that has had an excellent outcome for the pet participants and potentially for human patients."

The researchers stress that human patients with a spinal injury rate a return in sexual function and continence far higher than improved mobility.  Some of the dogs in the study did regain bowel and bladder control but the number of these was not statistically significant.

Mrs May Hay, owner of Jasper who took part in the trail (and can be seen in the video), said: "Before the trial, Jasper was unable to walk at all. When we took him out we used a sling for his back legs so that he could exercise the front ones.  It was heartbreaking. But now we can't stop him whizzing round the house and he can even keep up with the two other we own. It's utterly magic."

Explore further: Research offers hope in new treatment for spinal cord injuries

Related Stories

Research offers hope in new treatment for spinal cord injuries

May 3, 2011
Rutgers researchers have developed an innovative new treatment that could help minimize nerve damage in spinal cord injuries, promote tissue healing and minimize pain.

Evidence for spinal membrane as a source of stem cells may advance spinal cord treatment

October 28, 2011
Italian and Spanish scientists studying the use of stem cells for treating spinal cord injuries have provided the first evidence to show that meninges, the membrane which envelops the central nervous system, is a potential ...

Recommended for you

Laser used to reawaken lost memories in mice with Alzheimer's disease

July 26, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at Columbia University has found that applying a laser to the part of a mouse brain used for memory storage caused the mice to recall memories lost due to a mouse version of Alzheimer's ...

Cellular roots of anxiety identified

July 26, 2017
From students stressing over exams to workers facing possible layoffs, worrying about the future is a normal and universal experience. But when people's anticipation of bad things to come starts interfering with daily life, ...

Cognitive cross-training enhances learning, study finds

July 25, 2017
Just as athletes cross-train to improve physical skills, those wanting to enhance cognitive skills can benefit from multiple ways of exercising the brain, according to a comprehensive new study from University of Illinois ...

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

Lutein may counter cognitive aging, study finds

July 25, 2017
Spinach and kale are favorites of those looking to stay physically fit, but they also could keep consumers cognitively fit, according to a new study from University of Illinois researchers.

Zebrafish study reveals clues to healing spinal cord injuries

July 25, 2017
Fresh insights into how zebrafish repair their nerve connections could hold clues to new therapies for people with spinal cord injuries.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

zz6549
5 / 5 (1) Nov 20, 2012
This is quite impressive, but the article kind of glosses over a very important point: The dog does not get full function or feeling of his legs back.

In a healthy dog, the spinal cord coordinates the front/back legs without the brain having to control the back legs directly. In the dogs that received the treatment, they regained this spinal cord function but did not regain full control and sensation. They control the front legs, and the spinal cord moves the back ones.

Regardless, it's a massive improvement over no control at all. On that note, I question the need for the control in this study. Unless there was a plausible means for "the liquid in which the cells were transplanted" to generate similar growth, what's the purpose of the control? It should already be obvious that injecting arbitrary liquids into spinal cords doesn't cause them to form neural connections.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.